Turkish Colonialism’s Imagination & the “Blue Homeland”
By Ferhad Hemmi
Since the far-right government, Justice and Development Party (AKP), and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Coalition has tightened its grip on the reins of the Turkish state following the failed coup, two colonial projects have clearly dominated foreign policy. First, the “Misak-ı Millî (National Oath)” document signed in 1920, which sought a partnership with the Kurds in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey based on the “autonomous” formula, is being ripped from its historical context and transformed into a colonial and expansionist ideology aimed at fragmenting the geography of the Kurds, and destroying their political and existential will. Second, Ankara’s efforts to undermine all international agreements in the Mediterranean and the Aegean in order to expand its maritime borders through the “Blue Homeland” project at the expense of Greek and Cypriot sovereignty.
In this article I will endeavor to shed light on the doctrine of the “Blue Homeland” or, as it is called in Turkish “Mavi Vatan” (Blue Homeland)- which deals with the Turkish diplomatic threats and intense military maneuvers around Greek borders in the Aegean Sea to the north and Cyprus to the south. In fact, these tensions are not only a political dispute over maritime borders and economic interests stemming from the exploitation of energy resources – which could push the region toward possible war – but also a colonial ideology promoted by the far-right class that feeds on the distortion of history and the falsification of legal facts that accompany the use of force and military expansion.
The Blue Homeland doctrine, based on a legal and geopolitical doctrine to expand the maritime domain of Turkish sovereignty, was adopted by Erdoğan following his alliance with the nationalist and pro-Eurasian movement after the failed coup. The Turkish agreement with the Libyan “Government of National Accord” to establish a common maritime border was indicative of the consolidation of this doctrine, which refers to a vast maritime area that covers half of the eastern Mediterranean, excluding the continental shelf, the Greek and Cypriot islands, and the eastern part of Crete. Erdoğan’s team opportunistically believes that with the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war, Ankara is in a position to take advantage of its geographic location and maritime borders, on the one hand through its presence in NATO and on the other, by improving relations with Russia, China, and Iran. The “Blue Homeland” is a Eurasian nationalist version that works against Western interests and is primarily the product of the ideas of extremist Turkish naval generals. It also enjoys central attention and importance among military, political, economic, and intellectual elites. According to Ryan Gingeras, a professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, “prominent voices in Turkey similarly see the Aegean as a potential front in a proxy struggle against the United States.”
Despite the popularity of the Blue Homeland concept in extremist academic circles, such as Necdet Pamir, a Turkish expert in the field of energy, and Hasan Unal, an academic and journalist who has written extensively about the project, it was indeed naval officers who were at the core of this project’s founding. At the forefront is Soner Polat, an officer who served in the Naval Command and was implicated in the 2011 “Sledgehammer” case, and who joined the “Homeland” party led by Doğu Perinçek after his release. Along with Polat is Cem Gürdeniz, who first presented the “Blue Homeland” doctrine in June 2006 during a seminar at the Turkish Naval Forces Command Center. Gürdeniz is an extremist nationalist who is hostile to the West, and obsessed with the superiority of Turkish naval forces in the areas that mark the “Blue Homeland” map. He was also arrested in the “Sledgehammer” investigation. Currently, he writes articles as a regular contributor in the Aydınlık newspaper of the Perinçek Party, and he has also summarized his ideas in a book entitled “Writings on the Blue Homeland.” A third important member of this project is Cihat Yaycı, who, until recently, was Chief of Staff of the naval forces and one of the pillars of Ankara’s policy toward Libya. He was also behind the border demarcation agreement with the Libyan “Government of National Concord,” although he was deposed by Erdoğan in 2020. In general, these parties are united in strengthening the trend toward extremist nationalism with Eurasian and anti-Western undertones.
When considering the significance of the primacy of the Blue Homeland – supported by the ruling elite in Ankara – on the stage of Turkish foreign policy, it should first be analyzed from the perspective of internal changes in the Turkish state. This is especially important following the failed coup and the purging of the state apparatus of Fethullah Gülen supporters, who were close to the West and a “nightmare” for Blue Homeland theorists, according to French researcher Aurélien Denizeau, a specialist in strategic relations and Turkish foreign policy.
Later, with the dissolution of the alliance between Gülen and Erdoğan and the collapse of the peace process, accompanied by the failed coup and the closure of the “gavel” court file, the Blue Homeland group – the majority of whom are supporters of Bahceli’s “Turkish national sovereignty” as well as Perinçek – managed to infiltrate “Eurasianism” into the power circles and make the Blue Homeland doctrine one of the central goals of Turkish foreign and defense policy. This has reinforced the militarism and nationalist transformation of presidential discourse and the alliance between Erdoğan, Bahceli, and Perinçek, especially since the expansionist Turkish sovereignty vision Erdoğan now espouses regarding maritime and land borders enjoys great popularity in Turkey, including among the opposition.
The Myth of the “Blue Homeland”
The Turkish writer Cengiz Aktar reports what Gürdeniz, one of the pillars of the Blue Homeland, accuses the Turkish republican elite, i.e. Kemal Atatürk’s followers, of having taken too liberal a stance and not reacting appropriately when the republic was founded and the state borders with Greece and Cyprus were established. He also calls the faits accomplis from the 1930s inappropriate, accusing the Foreign Ministry of having been lenient on the issue until then. Gürdeniz and supporters of the Blue Homeland believe that the current situation is comparable to the “Second Treaty of Sevres,” in reference to the treaty that divided Turkey among the colonial powers after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. In their view, what is currently taking place on the maritime borders in the Mediterranean and the Aegean between the West and Greece is reminiscent of the attempts by Greece and its Western allies to undermine Turkey’s sovereignty between 1919 and 1922.
Their narrative goes even further, claiming, according to recent statements by some former officers, that Greece has not given up its desire to establish a “Greater Greece.” This imaginary narrative also conjures up the idea that Athens still has the idea of conquering Istanbul and the west coast and restoring Christian rule. This idea was advanced by Greek nationalist currents in the nineteenth century to free itself from the yoke of Ottoman rule and establish an independent state on its maritime borders. However, these officers ignore the fact that Greek foreign policy abandoned these hypothetical projects after the fire of Izmir and the defeat by the armies of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
This fear of Greece, coupled with a great distrust of the western world by the Eurasian current and nationalism, generally provides Erdoğan with the justification for establishing an exclusive sea zone, as proponents of this doctrine see it as a strategic interest that allows the Turks to defend themselves if necessary. Moreover, they consider the sharing of waters with Libya as an essential part of national security, which would prevent the establishment of a joint Greek-Cypriot maritime zone, and for this reason Gordens proposes his magic formula of concluding agreements by force, which fits perfectly with Erdoğan’s coercive policy. For example, Turkey’s exploration of hydrocarbons in the exclusive economic zone of Cyprus, the almost daily violation of Greek airspace, the conclusion of an agreement with an illegal government in Libya, and the violation of international treaties on the demarcation of maritime borders according to the logic of power and expansionist politics.
Refusal of International Treaties
It is well known that the current borders between Greece and Turkey in the Aegean Sea are the result of a series of wars and agreements. With the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, most of the islands in the Aegean were ceded to Athens. After the end of World War II, Italy ceded the 12 Dodecanese islands to Greece through the Treaty of Paris in 1947. After Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 and divided the country in two, tensions in the Aegean escalated further as Turkish representatives rejected the territorial sovereignty of the Greek islands, especially those islands that prevent Turkey from reaching the bottom of the Aegean to drill for oil under the continental shelf. The Greek prime minister at the time responded by stating that “Turkish foreign policy, especially after the occupation of Cyprus, has entered a new phase of expansion.”
According to the international treaties, Greece’s sovereignty over these territories is not in question, but Ankara intentionally misinterprets these treaties, especially regarding the demand for demilitarization of these islands, to violate Greek airspace over these islands again and again, a pattern that has increased in recent years until now.
When AKP came to power, it sought the settlement of disputes according to European Union standards, particularly the settlement of disputes with Greece. At that time, AKP supported the 2004 plan of United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, which envisaged the reunification of the two parts of Cyprus according to a federal model, in contrast to most statements made by Ankara today emphasizing the two-state solution. This dramatic change in discourse can be seen as a shift from liberalism to extreme nationalism-centralism. At that time, the Cypriot authorities were in the process of defining their own economic zone based on the principles of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This legal approach particularly aroused the fears of the Blue Homeland ideologues, who claimed to sacrifice Turkey’s national interests in exchange for “assumed membership” in the European Union, and accordingly, Ankara moved to exert pressure on the Turkish Cypriots to claim their maritime rights, especially the economic zone.
At the same time, proponents of the Blue Homeland reject the “Map of Seville,” which was produced in 2000 by the University of Seville in Spain under the auspices of the European Union and is considered the most important geographical document defining maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean. Luis Suarez, De Viviero, and Carl Lewis dealt with the eastern maritime borders of Greece and Cyprus in their study “A Geopolitical Perspective: the European Navy and the Enlargement of the European Union.” According to them, this map, based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, refers to Greece’s claim and sovereignty over the islands. This map contains an exclusive economic zone of 370km in length, and shows that the borders of Greece are the borders of the European Union and that the Greek continental shelf extends from the island of “Meis” southward to the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. On this point, the proponents of the Blue Homeland claim today that Ankara is not obliged to implement the provisions of the Convention on the Law of the Sea, as Turkey has not signed this convention, and that it is therefore worth calling for a special new system for the region, in line with Turkey’s colonial ambitions, as energy is becoming increasingly important in the Mediterranean.
The discovery of the large gas field “Sakarya” in the Black Sea has whetted the appetite of naval generals. Ankara, in turn, has used the geopolitical competition between Russia, China, and NATO to reassert its territorial claims in the eastern Mediterranean as a supply area for oil and gas, especially in light of the growing European demand for diversification of energy sources, weaponized by Moscow as political leverage against the EU. However, the idea promoted by Turkish foreign policy is not only to exploit these resources, but also to control sea transit corridors to Europe. These ambitions are part of a broader geopolitical vision, as proponents of the Blue Homeland believe that this idea will play a role similar to that of the Suez Canal, connecting the Mediterranean and the Middle East with the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and thus providing an important transit point for trade routes through the great transcontinental shipping that will link Europe, the Indian Ocean, and Southeast Asia. But all this passes through the gateway of Cyprus, which lies in the heart of the exclusive economic zone claimed by Ankara.
Cihat Yaycı considers Cyprus to be the most geopolitically and geo-strategically important island in the Mediterranean, and stresses that the heart of the Middle East will be organized around Cyprus – in particular Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, and Egypt. Accordingly, the ideologues of the Blue Homeland demand that the targeted maritime area must be defended as the basis of foreign policy, so that all domestic policies related to sovereignty and all foreign policies guided by the logic of force and expansion orbit around it.
Against this backdrop, the Turkish adventure in the Mediterranean will always beat the drums of war with neighboring maritime countries, especially given Moscow’s support for the demands of the current far-right government and the advocacy of the United States, France, and the United Kingdom in support of Greek and Cypriot demands. This is likely to lead to global conflicts in the coming years due to Turkey’s colonial claims.